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US first lady visits Beijing school on China tour

March 21, 2014
Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) — U.S. first lady Michelle Obama met with excited students who were building robots and tried her hand at Chinese calligraphy Friday during a tour of a Beijing high school.

Mrs. Obama was joined by Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the first day of a visit to China that aides say she hopes to use to promote education and people-to-people exchanges.

Accompanied by her two daughters and her mother, Mrs. Obama toured the Second High School Attached to Beijing Normal University in central Beijing. The elite school has 33 American exchange students, and some of its Chinese students aspire to study in the United States.

In a calligraphy class set up for Mrs. Obama's visit, the first lady practiced writing the Chinese character for "eternal" under the guidance of 16-year-old student Lu Yuhong.

"I'm nervous," Mrs. Obama said. "Don't be nervous," Peng replied in English.

Lu said he too was nervous, as well as "very excited."

"But the first lady was so amicable. She was very approachable," Lu said.

Peng also picked up the brush and wrote a four-character Chinese aphorism on virtues before presenting it to Mrs. Obama as a gift.

In another class, students showed the first lady small robots they had built, moving the devices with remote controls. One knee-high robot climbed over a pile of yellow plastic bricks.

"All the students that she met with, the Chinese students, spoke English and were able to explain to her in very fluent English what they were doing," said Tina Tchen, Mrs. Obama's chief of staff. "And I think she found that very impressive, because we know it's something that we struggle with in the United States, about having our kids be able to be fluent in a second language by the time they get to high school."

The visit is the first meeting between Mrs. Obama and Peng, whose husbands have sought to build a relationship based on trust and mutual respect.

Aides say Mrs. Obama plans to avoid political issues such as trade and cybersecurity during the seven-day, three-city visit.

Later in the morning, Peng went with Mrs. Obama and her mother, Marian Robinson, and two daughters, 15-year-old Malia and 12-year-old Sasha, to the former Imperial Palace in central Beijing. That was to be followed by a private dinner and a performance. On Saturday, the first lady was due to speak at Peking University and on Sunday visit the Great Wall.

While many Chinese question U.S. diplomatic intentions, American products and culture are hugely popular here and there is a strong undercurrent of respect for the U.S. first family.

Lu, the student, said he had bonded with American classmates over a shared love of U.S. television, including his favorite series, "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."

Among the six American exchange students attending the calligraphy class was Audrey Fritz, 17, a student with Malia Obama at the exclusive Sidwell Friends School in Washington.

"It's been an amazing experience," Fritz said of her time in China. "I have learned to be much more independent."

White House aides have said they hope Mrs. Obama traveling with her daughters and mother can resonate with Chinese families who value multi-generational activities.

Peng, a popular singer, has broken the mold of reticent Chinese first ladies. She was better known than her husband before Xi was named Communist Party leader and president, and has used her celebrity to promote AIDS awareness and other causes.

"China views Mrs. Obama's trip most positively," said Shen Dingli, professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai. "If she is humble and respectful, she will win the support from the Chinese public for building good relationships with the United States under the leadership of her husband."

Obama and Peng got along well, said Tchen, the chief of staff.

"I think the first lady found Madame Peng to be warm," she said.

The Obama delegation is due to fly Monday to Xi'an, home to the famed Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, then visit a panda breeding facility outside Chengdu in the southwest.

This is the first lady's first trip to China.



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